Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riding Off Into the (Florida) Sunset: America's First Cowboys

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The word cowboy immediately conjures up images of the arid, sunlit plains of the midwest, the dry heat of Texas and Arizona, big-brimmed hats and dusty mid-calf boots. But long before these Western heroes graced the horizon with their silhouettes, another brand of cowboy was mucking it up in the swamps. The original cowboy. The Florida cowboy.

Back in the early 1500s, nearly 350 years before cattle herding became commonplace in the plains, the Spanish attempted to cultivate the wilds of Florida’s bogs to no avail. Soon admitting failure, they traveled back to Spain, but left horses and heads of cattle behind to make room on their ships for the treasures they had acquired in North America. On return trips, however, the Spanish brought more cattle with them. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, in 1565 (with the "help" of native labor) the Spanish set up ranches—well before the Mayflower pilgrims were even born. By 1700 there were more than 30 ranches set up along the Florida Panhandle, which had become so successful at cattle-raising they had even begun exporting the animals to Cuba.

These cattle required local young men to tend them and keep them safe. Called vaqueros, these were not only the first cowboys in America, but are widely believed to be responsible for the first “cowboys and Indians” fights, when Native Americans attacked herds in revenge for trampling their lands.

In 1763, after the English won the Seven Year’s War, the British settlers of Florida took over ranching in the region, turning it into a thriving business model. These cowboys eventually fashioned a 12-foot-long threaded leather whip which cracked fiercely when used, earning them the name Crackers—and further separating them from the Western cowboys to come, who would use lassos. The ranchers used these whips to corral the Cracker cows, a distinct breed with long horns and large feet. Both Cracker horses and Cracker cows are relatively small, 700 and 600 pounds respectively. But this didn’t prevent the cows from becoming an important source of food for soldiers during the Civil War.


Cracker Cows, c. 1929 // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In fact, in 1861, small militia groups made up primarily of Crackers formed the “Cow Cavalry” which protected the ranches and plantations of Florida from Union soldier raids. Some say that Florida’s greatest contribution to the Civil War was the food its ranches provided Confederate troops, which the Cow Cavalry kept secure.

In the years after the war, the Crackers took over central Florida, allowing their herds, consisting of 5,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, to roam free along the marshy terrain. Their horses began to further adapt to the area, growing even smaller, with lighter heads and a more agile gait. The Cracker horses are now Florida’s official horse, and the species, which teetered on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, now numbers in the thousands in the Sunshine State.

Before highways tore through the state's dense shrubbery and wild trails, the Cracker horses let the Florida cowboys ride all day in 100-degree weather, their coats and skin more impervious to insect attacks than that of their main rival, the Quarter horses.


Cracker horse // Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

“They’re very good working horses because they have so much endurance," says Florida rancher and cowboy Bobby Hall. "They’ll be going all day and a lot of the Quarter horses will give out by noon."

Yes, the Crackers are still herding on their ranches to this day, and Florida does a booming cattle business because of it. It is the third largest beef producer east of the Mississippi. Their association is a robust organization with support from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It oversees the registration of purebred Cracker horses, provides information on buying, selling and breeding Cracker horses, and assists in the preservation of this quiet wealth of Floridian history.

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.


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